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It’s a vision thing: the case for a far-sighted approach to stem cell research

Stem cells have successfully been transplanted to restore sight. BWJones

In 2002, the Australian federal Parliament passed two Acts to regulate human embryo and stem cell research.

The Prohibition of Human Cloning Act banned practices that people seemed to be most worried about, like “reproductive cloning” to breed identical people, creating half-human half-animal hybrids, and selling human sperm, eggs and embryos.

These are all still crimes with heavy penalties.

The second piece of legislation – The Research Involving Human Embryos Act – permitted research on human embryos donated from IVF programs (which would otherwise have to be destroyed), provided the researcher has a licence and reports openly on the research.

This licence-based research has assisted infertile couples to have children and produced human stem cells for use in other research.

In 2005, the Lockhart Committee reviewed the two Acts and recommended the legislation should be maintained but also allow human embryos to be formed for research by somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) (though not by fertilisation). In 2006, the legislation was amended as the Committee recommended.

Since 2005, there have been many developments with “adult” stem cell research. In Australia, a patient’s own stem cells have been transplanted to the cornea to restore sight. In the UK, a patient’s diseased windpipe was replaced with one grown from her own stem cells.

There have also been developments with embryo research. Australian researchers were the first in the world to study Huntington’s disease in human embryonic stem cells (hESCs).

In the US, a human retina was created from human embryonic stem cells; and the first clinical trial recently started to treat patients with severe spinal injury with human embryonic stem cells.

Some laws have been changed in other countries to assist embryo research. New York State now permits federal funds to be used to pay women who donate eggs for research. And in the UK, the law allows scientists to use animal eggs to incubate a human nucleus to produce stem cells for research

Pluripotent human stem cells have now been derived without embryos (IPS cells) – in other words, embryonic stem cells can now be made without the embryos.

In 2011, the Heerey Committee reviewed the federal legislation again after consulting stakeholders and the wider community. Its report has been delivered to the Minister but it is yet to be publicly released.

So there have been exciting developments in human stem cell research, both with adult stem cells and also embryonic stem cells.

Most embryonic stem cells used in research to date have come from embryos donated from fertility treatment programs but there are still reasons to create embryos for research to obtain tissue-matched cells.

These are issues for ongoing community discussion.

Loane Skene is a panelist on today’s University of Melbourne’s Festival of Ideas event, The Genetic Revolution III: Legal, Ethical and Moral Dimensions. The Festival of Ideas runs until 18 June.

See our other Festival of Ideas coverage:

Determined to be different: what we do changes the wiring of our genes by keynote speaker Matt Ridley

We’ve cracked the genetic code, now what? by David Weisbrot

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